The Obama-Netanyahu Meeting: Ominous for Israel

The disconnect between reality and Obama's attitudes is only reinforced by the president's mention of "a wide-ranging, regional peace" -- which, judging by his recent meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah, upcoming meetings with Abbas and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and a planned address to the Muslim world from Cairo on June 4, is for him a matter of serious intent and not just of rhetoric. How all this is supposed to be squared with the current situations in Gaza and the West Bank, including both those entities' bedrock antagonism toward Israel, is not explained. But the prospect for Israel of major diplomatic pressure that ignores its security challenges is very real.

On the Iranian issue, it's no secret that Israel is not enthused about the U.S. administration's relatively relaxed timeline on Iran's march toward the bomb -- or, as Obama put it on Monday, "what we're going to do is try something new, which is actually engaging and reaching out to the Iranians." Clearly this approach is not new at all and, during the Bush administration, was tried by the Europeans -- sometimes with direct Bush-administration involvement -- with zero results.

Indeed, Obama's earlier statements to Newsweek were more amenable to Israeli perceptions than what he had to say, at least in the public part, on Monday. To Newsweek Obama said:

"I've been very clear that I don't take any options off the table with respect to Iran. I don't take options off the table when it comes to U.S. security, period." And: "I understand very clearly that Israel considers Iran an existential threat. ... They're right there in range and I don't think it's my place to determine for the Israelis what their security needs are."

Comparatively, Obama's words on Monday had a "Don't get your hopes up" ring. He said he had "assured the prime minister that we are not foreclosing a range of steps, including much stronger international sanctions, in assuring that Iran understands that we are serious"; and that "we should have a fairly good sense by the end of the year as to whether they are moving in the right direction." The references to sanctions as a sort of extreme option -- sanctions having been, again, attempted doggedly during the Bush years without no effect on Iran's nuclear program -- and to the "end of the year" are not music to the Israeli sense of the acuteness of the situation. Or as Israel's head of military intelligence put it last week:

Iran is intentionally advancing its nuclear development in such a way as not to cross any nuclear red lines, by enriching low-grade uranium that is not sufficient for weapons development, but that can quickly be adapted to weapons-grade uranium in such a short period of time that the process can't be sabotaged.

In other words, Iran is as always exploiting Western prevarication and Israelis cannot be confident that Obama is addressing -- despite his acknowledgment that "Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon would not only be a threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, but would be profoundly destabilizing in the international community as a whole" -- the full gravity of the situation.

Least agreeable to the ears of many Israelis was Obama's statement, on the vexed "linkage" issue, that "if there is a linkage between Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, [then] to the extent that we can make peace with the Palestinians..., I actually think it strengthens our hand in the international community in dealing with a potential Iranian threat." Or as he further explained:

[L]ook, imagine how much less mischief a Hezbollah or a Hamas could do if in fact we had moved a Palestinian-Israeli track in a direction that gave the Palestinian people hope. And if Hezbollah and Hamas is weakened, imagine how that impacts Iran's ability to make mischief, and vice versa.

Apart from overrating the role of Hezbollah and Hamas (however significant) in Iran's global drive for power, those words bespeak a belief that Tehran can be contained via Western, and specifically Israeli, diplomatic activity -- again, as if such activity had not already been exhaustively attempted without positive results in the Palestinian sphere itself, let alone among the mullahs.

This perception -- Israel as responsible for defusing the crisis through yet more territorial concessions despite its recent concessions having led directly to further destabilization and war -- is what is most ominous. Netanyahu's task of trying to manage the pressures while pursuing Israel's vital interests is hardly an easy one. His performance in Washington so far suggests that he's pursuing it with skill and subtlety.